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Compassion Fatigue from a Law Enforcement Stance

It’s no secret that law enforcement is considered a high-pressure profession. Police officers are repeatedly exposed to secondary trauma throughout their entire careers, oftentimes experiencing direct trauma themselves. Due to the intensity of this job, this trauma can result in symptoms of compassion fatigue among law enforcement officers.

When people experience traumatic events, first responders and police officers bring order to chaos and represent a source of support and protection. Some have difficulty detaching themselves from those horrific scenes, while others are at risk of becoming numb entirely. What is compassion fatigue, and how does it come about in law enforcement officers?


What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the emotional and physical erosion that takes place from frequent contact with traumatized people. It is where we become preoccupied with the suffering or pain of others. It is also similar to burnout, a component of compassion fatigue. Burnout usually stems from having too much work and responsibility whereas compassion fatigue comes from helping others, but being overwhelmed by the exposure to trauma. Additionally, another component of compassion fatigue is secondary trauma, which refers to witnessing another person's traumatic experience.

Compassion fatigue can demonstrate itself in a range of symptoms and behaviors, such as a diminished ability to care, anger or exhaustion, avoidance, feeling disconnected, and more. When your job is to help others, you are constantly exposed to tough and traumatizing scenarios, which can lead to symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout.


Compassion Fatigue in Law Enforcement

Police officers are shown traumatic scenes daily, which can lead to interpersonal problems like mental health issues and negative coping mechanisms. Law enforcement officers must also suppress their emotions in hard situations to remain calm and to stay neutral, as well as to make quick, sound decisions. As a result, they can experience compassion fatigue.

Law enforcement officers are often faced with situations that are emotionally charged and challenging. Dealing with traumatic situations such as rape, sexual assault, child abuse, and death results in serious damage to someone mentally. This routine exposure creates a vulnerability to compassion fatigue.


Officers who show signs of compassion fatigue also can exhibit a decrease in empathy and compassion. Diminished empathy and increased depression, as a result of compassion fatigue, can hinder decision-making within a law enforcement officer’s career. Law enforcement, as well as any other helping profession, requires a significant amount of empathy and compassion when addressing a trauma survivor, and handling a traumatic situation. Failure to recover from this kind of stress can have several implications for law enforcement officers.


Getting Help and Support

Law enforcement officers are not the only helping professionals to show signs of compassion fatigue. Recognizing compassion fatigue and getting support can have positive effects on your health, well-being, and career. Oftentimes, law enforcement can find it challenging for them to seek help in this particular industry. However, seeking professional help can assist in developing coping mechanisms for these intense situations for law enforcement officers and can improve their levels of compassion and reduce stress and burnout.

1. Source: TEND Academy (2022) What is Compassion Fatigue?

2. Source: Lori Bosma and Stacy Henning (2022) Compassion Fatigue Among Officers

3. Source: Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou (2022) Police Officer Compassion Fatigue


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